“Speed is more than a number,” booms the narrator of the video clip. “It’s a state of being. Speed is a shock to the soul. Speed is a call to action.” Everything about the clip puts you in mind of commercials for luxe sports cars: the portentous tone, the pensive musical score, the slick editing, the luscious images of light playing over gleaming metal. But the video actually touts the merits of a line of virtual spaceships from the game Star Citizen.
The massively multiplayer sci-fi combat and exploration game is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, who pioneered the space sim genre with Wing Commander and Freelancer before decamping to Hollywood to work as a producer on films like Lord of War and The Punisher.
Star Citizen marks his return to games, and even though it’s still deep in development, players can already purchase the fighters, freighters, bombers, and capital ships that they’ll eventually be able to use to traverse its persistent universe… once that persistent universe is finished. (At present, it’s only possible to pilot some of the smaller spaceships in a dogfighting mode.)
The commercials are the closest thing Star Citizen has to a conventional advertising campaign. But they’re part of the reason that the game has become the biggest crowdfunding project in history, raising over $75 million since it launched in October of 2012.
Roberts’ development studio Cloud Imperium hires top sci-fi conceptual artists to design the virtual spaceships. “People like Ryan Church who worked on Star Wars and the rebooted Star Trek films, and George Hull, who did stuff for the Matrix movies and the new Star Wars,” he says.
“The commercials are a way to highlight the the love and attention we put into the ships in a fun in-fiction way,” Roberts says. Each video is presented as if it was an actual spaceship commercial from the 30th century, produced by one of more than 10 spaceship manufacturers that exist in the fiction of the game world. The commercials are realistic in every detail, down to having “©MMCMXLV” appear onscreen. (How terrible to imagine that the current copyright regime is unchanged in the year 2945.)
Roberts says that the purpose of the ads is not just to convince people to pre-purchase ships. They also give people a compelling glimpse of what they’ll be able to do in the finalized version of the game. All this, while also lampooning the conventions of car commercials.
“I loved watching the fake commercials in the original Verhoeven version of Robocop,” he says. “Like the one for the 6000 SUX, or the Mutally Assured Destruction board game where the kids are nuking each other. We wanted some of that kind of fun.” Some Star Citizen ads also make tongue-in-cheek pop cultural references to things like Top Gear, Guardians of the Galaxy, and 2001.
What’s next for Star Citizen spaceship commercials? Roberts says that an upcoming ad for a multicrew heavy bomber will venture even further afield from standard promotional formats. “We could just do something boring, like what General Dynamics would make if they wanted to sell hardware to the Chinese military,” says Roberts. “But we thought it would be more fun to do an ad that’s like a snippet from a World at War-style documentary, like something you’d see on the History channel. Like, you’re hearing an interview with a veteran who saw the ship flying in, and was rescued by it.”
“Another ad I’d love to parody is the Volvo Trucks one with Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits,” says Roberts. “That’s genius, just a classic example of something supercool that went viral. Maybe we can do something like that with two Starfarers…”
Here are the best six Star Citizen ship commercials so far.
SHIP: 300 series
MANUFACTURER: Origin Jumpworks
WHAT IT IS: A line of single-person luxury ships
COST: $65 (base model)
THE COMMERCIAL: “The thing you take away from car commercials is emotion,” says Roberts. “We ask ourselves, what is the feeling this ship represents, do I associate it with speed, beauty, or durability?” This particular commercial is modeled on BMW ads voiced by Jon Hamm, and emphasis is on speed and high performance.
MANUFACTURER: Musashi Industrial & Starflight Concern (MISC)
WHAT IT IS: A heavy cargo hauler for delivering interstellar shipments
THE COMMERCIAL: A gruff, gravelly voiceover emphasizes the rugged, blue collar nature of the ship. It’s very reminiscent of ads for Ford F150 trucks. “We got Lance Henriksen to do that voice over,” says Roberts. “That’s a total Easter Egg; we didn’t ever publicize his involvement.”
MANUFACTURER: Consolidated Outland
WHAT IT IS: A line of starter ships focused on speed and maneuverability
COST: $45 to $70
THE COMMERCIAL: Portentous voiceover of a crazy dreamer who’s besotted with the brilliance of his creation. The ships magically assemble themselves around him as he raves about their special qualities. “We wanted a Howard Hughes-y charcter, and I had one of my actor friends come in and do a version of that,” says Roberts.
MANUFACTURER: Drake Interplanetary
WHAT IT IS: A patrol ship that’s ostensibly for militias, but is made with the needs of space pirates in mind. (Complete with an extra-large hull for storing loot.)
COST: $115 to $135
THE COMMERCIAL: Space combat is reimagined as a graceful dance, perfectly synchronized to tango music. The ad features a turning-the-invisible-hand-crank-to-flip-the-bird move a la Chris Pratt, and a Metroid-style surprise at the end.
SHIP: Constellation Aquila
MANUFACTURER: Roberts Space Industries
WHAT IT IS: A ship designed for exploration, with a large science bay and a rover that can be deployed when planetside.
THE COMMERCIAL: Everything from the score to the alien creature throwing a bone in the air to the obelisk-like corporate logo invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It’s about the promise of what you can do with the ship, discovering new worlds and finding new things,” says Roberts.
SHIP: M50 Interceptor
MANUFACTURER: Orign Jumpworks GmbH
WHAT IT IS: Racing ship
COST: $100 (limited stock–no longer on offer)
THE COMMERCIAL: A mock review by the opinionated host of a spaceship enthusiast show called Galactic Gear. “It’s a Top Gear parody, and we got someone who sounds kind of close to Jeremy Clarkson to do the voice over,” says Roberts.